While the San Juan Islands have been dwelling in sub-freezing temperatures for the last several days, we were surprised here in Portland with a dusting of snow late last night. After the snow fell, the clouds cleared and the temperatures dropped so this morning we woke up to blue skies, sunshine, and snow on the ground. Along with an e-mail report of a snow bunting sighted at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, it didn't take much convincing to get me out the door and in search of birds!
When we arrived at the start of the auto tour route the first thing we saw was a great blue heron. There were lots of them throughout the refuge, but this one was in hunting mode. While we looked on it caught and swallowed what looked to me like a decent sized rat! Never seen a heron eat a rodent before. In a nearby field were a couple of great egrets, and the first ponds had a mix of mallards, northern shovelers, bufflehead, and pied-billed grebes. Here is another of the herons (not the one that got the rat):
More waterfowl species were seen in the next few marshy areas, hanging out in the middle since the edges were icy and frozen over. I saw just a single gadwall, scaup, and ring-necked duck, and large groups of American coot and northern pintail. There were also a couple sandhill cranes, and lots of tundra swans. Here are some of the first swans I saw flying overhead, before we saw the large flock hanging out on Rest Lake:
The next sighting was not avian but mammalian - a coyote right in the middle of the road as we rounded a bend! I've seen nutria and river otters at the refuge but never any of the larger terrestrial mammals that are occasionally seen there so this was an exciting find. I've read coyotes are on the increase in the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area, and that seems to be true as I've heard about more sightings from friends and family lately. We saw a second coyote a little later on way off in the distance, but we had a great view of this one as it trotted by:
Near the coyote we saw several red-tailed hawks and northern harriers, the two raptor species that we saw quite a few of throughout the refuge. The only other bird of prey we saw was an American kestrel. As we entered the wooded area past the entrance to the Kiwa Trail we came across a mixed flock of birds that included golden-crowned kinglets and a white-breasted nuthatch, which is a species I'm always excited to see.
The road opens up into marshlands again as you curve around to the other side of Rest Lake and we spotted an American bittern sticking its head up among the grasses. It stayed in view just long enough to capture a couple of photos before it hunkered down and disappeared from sight:
On one side of the road a flock of Canada geese caught my eye. I scanned them and at the far end of the flock I finally spotted a couple greater white-fronted geese (year bird 222)!!! I don't know how this species has eluded me all year, but I'm glad to add it to the list as the first year bird of November. On the other side of the road a flock of cackling geese grazed on the dike, and with the sun shining it was a picturesque view with the swans in the background:
While scanning the lake, another great blue heron flew right by my driver's side window:
By now we were in the region where the snow bunting had been sighted both yesterday and this morning. I was a little dismayed as I started to look across the fields, which were dotted with hundreds of small piles of snow that would surely camouflage a little white snow bunting. My fear of missing the bird didn't last long, though, because a couple of cars were already stopped in front of us with windows open and cameras ready, and sure enough they had already found the bird for us. It still took me a moment to spot it because amazingly enough it was right in the road just a couple of yards from the cars! As soon as I saw it was unmistakably a snow bunting (NA life bird 339, year bird 223). I patiently waited for the other cars to move on and then pulled forward. By this time the bunting had moved to the grassy edge of the road, and with the snow on the ground and the sun still just peaking through the clouds it made for ideal conditions to get this photo of the bird:
It was the perfect way to cap off what had already been an amazing trip through Ridgefield, one of my all-time favorite places to go birding. I was all smiles all the way home!!